What is Augustana? The easy answer is the band that opened for Ben Lee and Aqualung at Saturday’s Fountain Day at Mount Vernon. As for what the word means, even the band doesn’t know.
“We were told it means ‘small glimpse of hope’ in Latin,” bassist Jared Palomar said. “But we’re not for sure.” They’ve been asked this question so many times that drummer Justin South said he’s offering a $50 reward to the first person who can tell him the real meaning of the word at one of their shows.
What the band does know is that they have worked hard to get to this point. Palomar and lead singer Dan Layus met as both were struggling through school at Greenville College in Illinois. They formed the band Augustana with former guitarist Josiah Rosen and established a strong following on their college campus, but couldn’t make it big enough.
The guys dropped out of college and moved to California to work on their music. There they met South. They recorded a demo, shopped it around and signed on to Epic Records. From there, the band recorded their album, and quickly headed out on the road.
Last year, the band toured almost non-stop in support of their first album, All the Stars and Boulevards, which was released in early September. The first single off the record was “Boston,” a song that’s close to Augustana’s heart.
“For me it’s like kind of knowing what you want to do but you’re in a certain place, a path, a road, whatever you want to call it and you want to get out,” South said.
The success of the album and “Boston” allowed Augustana to headline its first tour in February of this year, which Palomar and South said is their greatest accomplishment as a band. “It’s always a risk to do a headlining tour because there’s no one to fall back on,” South said. “If people don’t show up, then people didn’t show up to see you.”
But people did show up. Almost one-third of the shows were sold out. On a band’s first headlining tour, that’s a rare feat to accomplish.
Augustana performed Saturday to a fairly large crowd on the quad at the Mount Vernon Campus. Throughout the show, Layus continually joked with the audience, saying no one’s heard of Augustana. However, much of the crowd instantly knew the first few chords of their closing song “Boston.” Layus’ raspy, heartfelt vocals supported by the delicate, yet powerful instruments drew in much of the Fountain Day crowd.
Australian rocker Ben Lee and his band followed Augustana. The singer from down under quickly got the crowd involved in his set from the first song with his playful stage presence. Piano-rockers and Fountain Day headliner Aqualung closed the night as the sun went down. During their hour-long set, the Brit imports performed such hits as “Strange and Beautiful” and “Brighter than Sunshine.” Later this year, Aqualung hopes to record and release a follow-up to their 2005 album Strange and Beautiful. The band’s members were not available for interviews.
“(It’s my job) to show people that the real fun, and spontaneity of life is playing,” said Lee after his performance.
A few songs into the set, Lee left his band mates on stage and walked out into the audience and began doing flips on a moon bounce located on the hill. Later, Ben said, “There I am playing in front of five or six hundred people and I’m still thinking: ‘how do I entertain my best friends?'”
Lee’s lighthearted nature translates to his music as well. As a teenager, Lee began recording songs in his bedroom at age 14.
“It was like destiny,” Lee said. “My thoughts became occupied with (making music). I didn’t see being young as being any reason why I shouldn’t make records.”
“I think I thought it sounded like Appetite for Destruction (Guns N Roses) or The Wall (Pink Floyd), but I think it really sounded like two guitarists and a drummer playing on pots and pans recorded in a kitchen on a tape deck.”
Lee began mailing out his demos and record labels began coming to his shows. “All of the labels hated it, except one,” remembered Lee. “They said it stuck out like dog’s balls.”
In translation, that means that Lee made a presence and a large enough impact to Fellaheen Records that they signed him.
Since then, Lee’s music career has been history. Lee has released five albums in the past decade and has toured across the globe. Lee said he owes much of his international success to his pure love for music.
“Music is the core of who I am,” he said. “I’ve never really compromised that. I love music, but more than that I love humanity. I love people. Whatever tool I have, I want to use to help people. Music happens to be a gift I was given.” n
You can catch Augustana in the D.C. area this summer when the band performs at HFStival on May 28. The band will join Snow Patrol at the 9:30 Club on May 31. Ben Lee and his band will hit the road this summer in support of Nickel Creek. Check out www.ben-lee.com for tour dates and podcasts.